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The Power of Music and Memory – A Scientific Fact!


Pictured: Gloria Hoffner, owner Guitar With Gloria  and winner of 2010 National Certification Council of Activity Professionals Best Practice Award

For every Baby Boomer who knows what comes next after, “Here we come, walkin’ down the street…” there is a member of the World War II generation to whom, “I’ll Be Seeing You” reminds them of empty days and nights waiting for a loved one.

That is the unmistakable power of music to fire up the brain’s recall abilities. Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University and former acting director of the National Institute on Aging, explains how the brain reacts to a familiar piece of music.

“Memories are created when clusters of hundreds or thousands of neurons fire in a unique pattern,” Cohen writes in his book The Mature Mind.

He further explains that when you hear a catchy song your brain neurons light up. Later, when you hear the same song again, those original memory patterns are automatically strengthened. “The more often a particular pattern is stimulated, the more sensitive and permanent are the connections between the neurons in the pattern,” Cohen writes. “Not only does learning link neurons in new patterns, it also stimulates neurons to grow new connections.”

Cohen urges directors of retirement communities to implement arts programs because national studies have proven seniors involved in the arts improve physically and mentally.

A study conducted with the Levine School of Music in Washington DC studied 300 seniors – half enrolled in an arts program once a week and half not enrolled – over a two year period.  The study reviewed the health and social functioning of the participants before, at one year and at the end of the study. The results, Cohen reports, those who attended the arts program had better health while those who did not attend saw their health deteriorate.

In addition, the arts group used fewer medications, felt less depressed, were less lonely, had higher morale and were more socially active, Cohen wrote.

As a musician playing for senior clubs in the Philadelphia Archdiocese as well as at retirement communities, nursing homes, and adult day centers I see the power of music to recall memories every day! The transforming power of music works for those with and without cognitive disabilities due to dementia or other brain diminishing conditions.

Examples – I was playing a Frank Sinatra tune for a couple. The wife suffers from dementia and had not spoken in several months. During the music she turned to her husband and said, “I remember when we saw Frank Sinatra on our anniversary…” Her husband and the caretakers were stunned!

I play on a twice monthly basis for residents of a dementia unit. Most of these residents are in the mid to late stage of the disease. When I started there was a man who was non-verbal. He did not even lift his head during the music.

About two months into playing, he started watching me, listening, and seemed to focus, but still didn’t speak. The following month, to everyone’s surprise, he started singing “Amazing Grace”.

Every time I returned he sang a little more. In six months he was singing all the time, and then asked to come with me as I moved from room to room playing for the residents. Through music, he came out of his withdraw and became engaged and vocal again.

Another similar but different situation, I play at a facility for young adults with mental and physical disabilities. I noticed that when I came to play, one man in his mid-30s would walk over and stand next to me, not speaking, but sort of moving his body with the music.

This didn’t surprise me – but it did surprise his caseworker. The caseworker told me the man sat in the corner all the time, never spoke, never acknowledged anyone 99 percent of the time. It was only when I came and played music that this man gave any response.

Final example, I arrived to play music at a facility and as I was setting up a nurse brought a resident in a wheelchair to the front row. The resident was angry. She said, “I don’t want to be here. My legs hurt. Take me back to my room and let me lay down.” The nurse refused saying the resident needed time out of bed and suggested the resident give the music program a chance.

The woman was clearly angry as the nurse left. I played a couple of songs and the same resident stopped frowning. I played a few more and she gave me a curious look. About 3/4th of the way through the one hour program, the resident started singing along and at the end she was leading the clapping motions in the song, “Bingo”.

The resident wheeled herself to me as I was packing up. She thanked me and asked me to return. She WHISTLED her way out of the room!

These examples are backed up by studies conducted by The National Institute of Nursing Research who found that listening to music reduced patient pain levels. The National Institute of Education and Health Sciences found music tempo can improve mood and heart rate.

A research study of stroke victims gives even more proof of the positive power of music on the brain.

Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, reported  on a research study that found stroke victims who had lost the ability to speak regained their speaking ability through singing. The researchers believe the melody helped the stroke victims’ brains rewire and bypass the damaged regions of the brain and thus restore communication skills.  A small number of patients in the study did so well with the singing therapy that were able to hold full conversations and even make a speech, he said.

Schlaug told the American Association of Advancement of Science, “The great advantage of this technique is that it is very simple..by encouraging people to sing you can get them back to speaking again.” (reported in the Telegraph.co.uk in February 2010)

When a song reminds you of your mother doing the dishes, or your freshman dance in high school, or your first drive in a new car, the music is also firing up your brain, forming new connections, and keeping your brain healthy.

The saying, “You can’t teach old dog new tricks” comes from the writing of Sigmund Freud in 1907!! Over 100 years later, scientists are proving every day that we can continue to learn throughout our lives if we make the effort to continuously learn new things and exercise our memories.

So keep right on singing with the radio, in the shower, in the choir or alone in the woods. That song in your heart and on your lips is keeping your brain healthy and strong.

Tagline – Gloria Hoffner, BA, ADC, is owner of Guitar with Gloria, providing live music and sing-a-longs in the Greater Philadelphia area. She is a member of the National Association of Activity Professionals and winner of the 2010  National Certification Council of Activity Professionals Best Practice Award.Further information at: GuitarwithGloria.com

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